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QIMR scientists target stem cells responsible for blood cancer

QIMR scientists researching a group of blood cancers have uncovered a potential treatment which targets the cause of the disease instead of merely treating the symptoms.

Dr Steven Lane and the team in QIMR’s Translational Leukaemia Research Laboratory, have showed how interferon alpha – a drug also used to treat patients with Hepatitis C – can destroy the stem cells at the core of a group of blood cancers known as myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs.)

“This work moves us from thinking about how to control the symptoms of disease, to trying to cure these blood cancers,” Dr Lane said.

Myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) are a group of blood cancers, in which the bone marrow produces too many mature blood cells. About 800 Australians get MPNs each year; about 200 will die from the condition.

In 2005 scientists identified a gene mutation that causes MPNs, known as JAK2V617F. This gene can be detected with a simple blood test.

Dr Lane, in collaboration with scientists at Harvard Medical School, had previously identified the rare stem cells in MPN. These stem cells can be thought of as the seed from which the cancer grows. Dr Lane has also found that these cells are resistant to chemotherapy.

This new study has shown that Interferon both treats the symptoms of MPN and eliminates stem cells in cancers containing Jak2V617F.

“This is early days, of course, but we’re now looking to develop clinical trials to see how effective this approach is in patients.”

This research is published in the current issue of the journal Blood and can be viewed online at

Dr Lane’s research is funded by the NHMRC, Leukaemia Foundation, In Vitro Technologies and philanthropic donations.